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Ethnic nations on a global stage

Ethnic nations on a global stage

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 21, 2022 (Week 5)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/5

Main reading: J. L. Comaroff and Comaroff (2009)

Other reading: J. Comaroff and Comaroff (1989); J. L. Comaroff and Comaroff (1990); J. L. Comaroff (1987)

One and many

Anthropology faces a problem that all inquiry faces.

Does the object of inquiry—people—have a single, unitary essence, or is it just a name for many, different things?

Two responses

There is something that all people have in common.

People are different; there is nothing they have in common.

There is a single French language as an abstract system.

There are many ways of speaking, and some of these are. similar enough to be mutually intelligible.

A modern society is a society based on individualism, voluntary choice, and rational rules for cooperation.

There is no such thing as modernity because no two societies are alike or have the same history.

Neither of these are good choices. What to do?

Solution 1: Things are what they are in essence; something is either one thing or another

One solution would start from the assumption that things are what they are. Everything that is, has a single essence. A = A.

A = { a1, a2, a3, a4, … an }

B = { b1, b2, b3, … bn }

Everything is either a version of one thing or a version of another. The boundary is clear. A is not (A or B).

Solution 2: Things contain multitudes; there is a unity of opposites within every thing

Nothing has an essence. Everything is mixed. Everything is somewhere on a continuum, and different points on the continuum have both one side and the other.


State and process

Sahlins and Bashkow are examples of thinkers who seek to find the underlying unity and essence of the many examples of people’s lives within one community or situation.

  • The idea of Orokaiva is more real than the diverse manifestations of Orokaiva in the material world.
  • Contemporary Orokaiva is different from the Orokaiva of the past, but we can still find a abstract system or logic at the level of ideas.

Wolf can read as offering several alternatives.

  • One possibility is that Wolf seeks order as well, but not in the form of culture as abstract system of thought. He might instead argue for a fundamental unity of global capitalism that appears in different versions in different places and times. In this view global capitalism “grind[s] the human fabric into the featureless uniformity of selenic erosion” that might be good or bad (Polanyi 1947, 115).
  • Another possibility is that Wolf has no view of an underlying order, and that he really thinks that history is random chance, chaos and disorder. (This seems unlikely though.)

History can appear as though it has no direction, but I would argue that in historical processes we see flux and the possibility of new developments, not chaos

Things change

What would it mean to embrace the second solution, and to assume that A is both A and not-A.

It would mean that everything in the world is always in flux, always changing, which is the view of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.

  • “The way up is the way back” (Heraclitus 2001, 45).
  • You can’t cross the same river twice. (see Heraclitus 2001, 27)

Or, what about clouds? Do clouds have a single essence, or are they just dense collections of drops of water?

Clouds are both countable entities and fuzzy collections. Clouds exist in flux.

Contradictions lead to change

The law of the dialectic is known even to people who know how to cook soup, or so says Marxist thinker Leon Trotsky (see Thatcher 1991, 134).

  • Boil water. Add ingredients.
  • Add some salt. Mmmm… soup.
  • Add some more salt. Mmmmmmm…. soup.
  • Add some more salt. Mmmmmmm…. soup.
  • Add some more salt. Mmmmmmm…. soup. (Maybe a little salty.)
  • Add some more salt. Mmmmmmm…. soup. (Probably too salty but still edible soup.)
  • Add some more salt. 🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮
  • It’s not soup anymore. It’s undrinkable saltwater.

The soup is the flux of salt and water. It is a union of drinkable and undrinkable water.

Soup is always on the verge of becoming something else.

Can we also say this about societies and cultures?

A dialectic process is the working-out of contradictions

A dialectic is a back-and-forth process over time. It is not a synchronic snapshot or a straight linear narrative with a single end.

G. W. F. Hegel: Self-consciousness (an idea of one’s self) is a dialectic process.

Often this is described as a sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but these are not Hegel’s words, and can be a distraction (Mueller 1958).

The dialectic of recognition between lord and servant

  • I am me; everything else is something I can use for me.
  • Other people are just other objects in the environment for me to use.
  • When two people meet, they each treat the other as an object. A struggle ensues.
  • The incompleteness of their initial self-concepts can be changed into an new, unequal, asymmetric relationship.
    • One person is the master of the other.
    • The other person is the servant of the master, and depends on the master for its new understanding of itself.
  • This is an unstable relationship. One person’s self-image depends on denying another person a self-image.
    • If the lord kills the servant, then we’re back to square one.
    • If the servant kills the lord, then their self-concept as a free person now depends on killing other people.
  • The struggle for recognition between two people ultimately can and will resolve itself when the contadiction is sublated, or overcome, and both parties move to a new self-concept of themselves as equals.
  • A new kind of self-conscious emerges: I am a person who is like others. A person is both a self (for me) and an other (for other people).

Colonialism as dialectic

  • The initial European conception of their colonial expansion is that it is simply the establishment of a new society in a new place.
  • But this produces a contradiction: A colonial settlement calls forth its opposite—A colonial settlement is not a native society.
  • Colonialism is the both the establishment of a new community and the displacement of an old community.

The same dialectic is taking place for people who are subject to colonialism.

  • To be Orokaiva is, on some level, to be not-waitman. Bashkow describes one moment in this struggle of recognition between Orokaiva and the (neo)colonial culture. What happens next?
  • Orokaiva people are Orokaiva, but in a changed context.

Ethnicity, Inc. 

  • Being San or a member of the Bafokeng kingdom is now defined by the community’s existence within a postcolonial, post-Apartheid nation-state.
  • Ethnic consciousness of oneself as San, Bafokeng, or another ethnic identity is associated with an overall shift to participation in and dependence on an economy based on private property.
    • To be San is to be a co-owner of “San traditional knowledge.”
  • People’s distinctive cultural differences are a basis for their collective identity as an ethnicity, but this identity is objectified as collective property.

References and further reading

Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 1989. “The Colonization of Consciousness in South Africa.” Economy and Society 18 (3): 267–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085148900000013.

Comaroff, John L. 1987. “Of Totemism and Ethnicity: Consciousness, Practice and the Signs of Inequality.” Ethnos 52 (3-4): 301–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.1987.9981348.

Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. 1990. “Goodly Beasts, Beastly Goods: Cattle and Commodities in a South African Context.” American Ethnologist 17 (2): 195–216. https://www.jstor.org/stable/645076.

———. 2009. “A Tale of Two Ethnicities.” In Ethnicity, Inc., 86–116. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heraclitus. 2001. Fragments: the collected wisdom of Heraclitus. Translated by Brooks Haxton. New York: Viking. http://archive.org/details/fragmentscollect00hera.

Mueller, Gustav E. 1958. “The Hegel Legend of ‘Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis’.” Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (3): 411–14. https://doi.org/10.2307/2708045.

Polanyi, Karl. 1947. “Our obsolete market mentality.” Commentary, February 1947. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/our-obsolete-market-mentality/.

Thatcher, Ian D. 1991. “Trotsky’s Dialectic.” Studies in Soviet Thought 41 (2): 127–44. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20100579.

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